'Oedipus' and 'Symphony': Locals theaters get their Greek on

Damian Johnson and Joey Ford.
Damian Johnson and Joey Ford.
Photo courtesy Live Action Set

This is how you update the classics.

Last week two shows, Oedipus El Ray and The 7-Shot Symphony, opened locally, taking ancient stories and twisting them for a fresh context. In the case of Oedipus, the doomed incestuous king played out his life in the California Latino community. The Symphony went a step further, taking a bevy of different classical stories, merging them together into a loose narrative, and then setting the whole thing in the Old West.

The two shows had distinctly different tones, but both knew better than to mess too much with the core of each story. He may be a western musician, but Orpheus is ready to chase his bride anywhere, even the depths of the Underworld (here, naturally, a saloon). No matter the dressing of the story, Oedipus's flaws crack right through him to his foundation, ignoring every warning sign along the way to ruin.

These stories have endured for millennia, after all--the epic of Gilgamesh dates back at least four thousand years--and they've survived in part because readers, listeners, and audiences have connected with the essence of creations as diverse as Odin, Jocasta, and Anansi.

Beyond that, the changed settings are more than window dressing. Latino culture and prison life inform Oedipus's experiences at every turn, putting a new spin on his famous confrontation with his father at the crossroads or the kind of "kingdom" he builds once settled in the family home in the Barrio. The Old West setting gives the folks at Live Action Set more than just a chance to run around the stage wearing Stetsons and long coats, shooting finger guns at each other. There's a mythic sweep to this part of America's past, and the dusty highways and rough-hewn towns here fit nicely with the other-worldly tone of the stories.

Most of all, both shows are very good. Teatro del Pueblo and Pangea World Theater bring Oedipus to life in a well-acted and directed production, while Live Action Set uses their movement background to bring these tales to life with no sets or props.

Oedipus el Ray and The 7-Shot Symphony run through March 27.

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